Yuval Noah Harari
Yuval Noah Harari De Fontenay—SIPA/AP

How Humankind Could Become Totally Useless

Feb 16, 2017
Ideas
Hopper is opinions editor for TIME Ideas.

TIME spoke with the Israeli historian and internationally best-selling author of Sapiens about his new book, Homo Deus, a vision of humankind’s future.

Your book imagines a future in which humans live in such an optimized world, they become useless and 
their lives lose all meaning. How do you enjoy a cup of coffee with such a cloud hanging over your head?

In every generation, humans have
lived under one cloud or the other. One cloud goes away, and another takes
its place. Yes, artificial intelligence is definitely going to change society in a fundamental way, and there are possible dangers. But this is not a prophecy. If I thought that there is nothing we can do, why just make people upset?

You present the possibility that select people will become superhuman, Homo deus. What would a superhuman do all day?

We don’t have any idea. The notion of superhumans is using bioengineering and artificial intelligence to upgrade human abilities. If they use the power to change themselves, to change their own minds, their own desires, then we have no idea what they will want to do. Or, what happens if using, let’s say, brain-computer interfaces we can connect two brains together so that I can access your memories and remember your childhood, what will that do to human identity? Or gender identity — today I can play a two-dimensional computer game as a woman ... What if we could do that in a three-dimensional virtual reality that encompasses not just our vision and audio but our entire body? The very notion of an identity, a fixed story, may become obsolete.

How might Homo sapiens find a sense of self-worth if technology can do their work better than they?

One answer from experts is that computer games will fill the void. And they sound scary and dystopian until you realize that actually for thousands of years humans have been playing virtual reality games. Up until now, we simply called them religions. In Judaism or Christianity and so forth, you invent rules that don't exist anywhere except in your imagination. You spend your life trying to gain points and to avoid all kinds of things that detract from your points. And if by the time you die you gather enough points, then you pass on to the next level, in heaven. Billions of people have found meaning to their lives by playing these games.

You write that humanity, after eradicating plague, war and famine, will use technology to seek bliss, immortality and divinity. What goal would you add to that list?

I would add truth, and in particular understanding ourselves, our minds. For thousands of years, we have gained the power to control the world outside us but not to control the world inside. You could stop a river from owing, but you could not stop your body from becoming old. You could kill mosquitoes, but you could not kill annoying thoughts buzzing inside your head. In the 21st century, we are going to gain the power to control the world inside us, to kill the thoughts and not just the mosquitoes. The danger is that we will misuse this power and end up with an internal ecological disaster — a complete mental breakdown.

So ignorance isn't bliss?

Ignorance is not too dangerous. If you combine it with power, then this is a toxic mix.

If you avoid technology, you risk being left behind quickly; if you use it, you risk wiping out humanity. Which path have you chosen?

I try to find a middle path. On a personal level,
 I try to still be able to disconnect. I start and finish my workday with one hour of meditation. Every year, I go for a long meditation retreat of between 30 and 60 days. I actually heard about the election of Donald Trump only on the 20th of December because I was on a 45-day silent-meditation retreat.

How was that?

It saved me a month of worrying about it.

Why do you think data has become a more popular religion than combating climate change?

Because it promises far greater power. If you have enough data, and enough computer power, then you can create an algorithm that understands humans better than they understand themselves. This has been kind of the holy grail of governments and armies and corporations for thousands of years: to understand humans better than they understand themselves, to be able to predict them, to be able to manipulate them. There is no power in climate change. There is mainly just investment. With present day technology, the only real way to stop global warming is to stop economic growth, and this is something no government is willing to do.

You believe that, one day, algorithms could be sued like corporations are today. What would that look like?

Cases come to mind in which algorithms could discriminate against people in unlawful ways. Now, it is much easier to fix an algorithm than to fix a human being’s discrimination, because humans have a subconscious, which influences their decisions without them being aware of it. But the other side of the coin is that algorithms may come to recognize some pattern that makes no sense to human beings like race or gender or sexual orientation do — the algorithm discriminates against people, and we don't know why.

As a gay man, which discrimination do you prefer?

I mean, there would really have to be some evil algorithm to do worse than human beings.

Do you have advice for people for finding an occupation that cannot be easily replaced?

I think our best bet is to develop your emotional intelligence and your resilience, the ability to keep changing all the time. Previously in history, even in the 20th century, life was divided into two main parts: In the first part, you mostly learned, acquired knowledge and skills, and you built yourself a personal and a professional identity. In the second part, you mostly made use of those skills and those identities. The pace of change in the 21st century will be such that most of what you learn as a teenager will be completely irrelevant by the time you're 40. If I were like in charge of education or a school or, I would try to crack that: How to educate people to be very resilient and to embrace change throughout their lives instead of to teach them coding or mathematics or whatever.

Is it safe to assume you are skeptical of handing over data about yourself?

There is a saying that if you get something for free, you should know that you’re the product. It was never more true than in the case of Facebook and Gmail and YouTube. You get free social-media services, and you get free funny cat videos. In exchange, you give up the most valuable asset you have, which is your personal data.

What would persuade you to buy
 an Amazon Echo?

I won’t be left with any choice. I won’t be able to buy food, to get health care, if I don’t have an Echo. What I try to focus on is not to try to stop the march of technological progress. Instead, I try to run faster. If Amazon knows you better than you know yourself, then the game is up.


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